Except for me.
My mother was 44 when I was born, ancient for that era. She was raised in the South, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries. She was not allowed to play cards on Sunday or take the name of the Lord in vain.
By contrast, I grew up in the Ice Storm 70s. Parents were swapping car keys at parties, smoking weed with their kids, divorcing to “find” themselves and parading a series of lovers in front of their children. So the fact that my mother deemed Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret too racy for me to read made me feel freakish.
I would hang out with the other girls during homeroom, all of whom, it seemed, were reading the Judy Blume classic, and listen to them compare bra sizes and confess that they were practicing the breast-developing exercise described in the book — “I Must, I Must, I Must Increase My Bust!” — while erupting in giggle fits. I would stand flush-faced on the edge of the group and pretend that I knew exactly what they were talking about.
I knew the gyst. I knew the wildly popular book was the first to explore, in straightforward, unapologetic fashion, the obsession with body changes and sexual development that seizes kids as they approach puberty. I knew, from hanging at the sidelines of Are You There God? discussions during homeroom, that the book dealt not only with developing breasts, but with menstruation and the first sexual longings. I was angry, and embarrassed, that I was denied access to the Judy Blume club by my mother, who would clench her jaw, lip quivering, when I got old enough that she could no longer avoid buying starter bras and sanitary napkins to have on hand “when the time comes.”
So when my daughter and I were browsing through a bookstore recently, and happened upon Are You There, God? It’s Me Margaret, I bought it so she and I could read it together, both for the first time.
Franny is ten, and her hormones are starting to kick in. She has the slight curve of nascent hips, tiny breast buds noticeable enough to warrant half-camisoles from Target.
She will no longer let me in her room when she’s changing. She wears pale pink lip gloss, carries a purse and reads Tiger Beat.
Recently, she has begun complaining about the appearance of blonde hair on her legs. “No, you cannot start shaving yet,” was my answer to her inevitable question.
She tells me which of the older girls in school has their period, which are wearing “cup bras.” Her American Girl book, The Care and Keeping of You, has been read multiple times cover to cover, the pages about bras and periods dog-eared.
So it seemed like the right time to pull Are You There God? off the bookshelf and read it at bedtime. Franny has always enjoyed being read to, but she’s not a book lover the way I was at her age. She is, however, enrapt with the protagonist Margaret’s odyssey into adolescence: the bra-fitting, the discussion of which girls are “fast,” the slow shift from seeing boys as another species to objects of desire, the waitingwaitingwaiting for the first period.
Since this is also my first time reading the book, I too feel like I’m being let in on a secret, one that was verboten when I was my daughter’s age. Story time usually takes place around 9:00 pm, after a glass of wine (mine, not Franny’s). Exhausted from a full day’s work at my office job, I often find myself breezing through the words, focussed more on the mountain of damp towels that need to be piled into the washer, or the e-mails I need to respond to before I pass out midway through Jon Stewart.
Not so with Are You There God?, however. I am right there with Margaret. I remember being 11, 12, 13, praying at bedtime, entreating God to make me normal. This fixation on normal, on figuring out what it is, on comparing oneself with friends’ development, on doing things to fit in even when you don’t fully understand what it is that you’re doing, perfectly captures the emotional terrain of pre-adolescence. Which is why, clearly, the book has become a classic.
I remember the beginning of my 8th grade year, coming back from summer break to discover who had gotten their period. I remember frantically checking whatever birds-and-bees book I had kept from 5th grade sex ed, the sinking-stomach feeling upon hearing squeals when news of yet another girl getting her first period spread through homeroom. I remember gazing wistfully at the sanitary pads my mother had stored in a drawer in the bathroom, so I would be prepared. I remember lying in bed at night, pleading with God to bestow upon me my first period, and being convinced it would never happen.
Reading the book with Franny has been a wonderful, passing-the-torch moment for both of us. Franny’s excitement standing at the brink of grown-upness is palapable, and she brims with questions about my own pre-adolescence, searching for clues about what awaits her.
“How old were you when you got you first cup bra?”
“Eleven or twelve.”
“What size was it?”
“32 A, I think.”
“I don’t remember.”
“When did you get your period?’
“Thirteen and four months. I couldn’t wait to get it, and then was miserable when I did.”
“It was on my first ski weekend. I was in agony from cramps.”
“Why did you get cramps? Will I get cramps?”
And on it goes.
Not only is Franny being given the keys to womanhood, but she is also learning about her own genetic history, something that remained a disconcerting void for me because I was adopted. Even if I had felt comfortable asking my mother what her bra size was, or how old she was when she got her first period, her answers would have no bearing on what was in store for me. But Franny and I both delight in her questions because my answers are harbingers of what is to come for her.
She doesn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to read the book. I’ve tried to explain my mother’s puritanical upbringing, her paralysis over discussing anything that hinted of sex. I’ve talked about how my mother wasn’t able to talk about the loss inherent in adoption, the unacknowledged pain she felt around not being able to conceive after my sister was born, and how all of this pent-up grief manifested in a contiuum of refusal to discuss sexual development to histrionics and tears when she and I tried to talk about it.
One of the most lovely gifts my daughter has given me is to be able to welcome her into the fold of women. We are both excited by the any-timeness of her puberty, the awareness that crossing over its cusp will bond us even more. I am so grateful that I have a genetic inheritance to pass on to her, that I can celebrate the profoundness of her burgeoning womanhood.
I wish that my own mother had been able to celebrate this with me, because she was clearly so devastated that she couldn’t. Her difficulty managing her grief was burdensome, and left me with an uneasy combination of guilt and shame when I discovered my first period in the stall of a department store ladies’ room. More than anything, I wish we had been able to talk about puberty, and sex. Doing so would have brought us closer together, made our relationship more normal, instead of being an insurmountable divide which drove us further apart.
Just as the mystery of womanhood is starting to unfold for Franny, the magic of the mother-daughter bond is taking on a new, more profound meaning for me. After the residue of old-school adoption and bad divorce that have long colored my life, it’s a pleasant sigh, a sip of cold mint lemonade on a hot summer day, to revel in normal.
And reveling is one of Franny’s strong suits.